By acquiescing to impossible rules, the railways are killing themselves

By trying to do the impossible, the railways are on a suicide mission. Trying to enforce social distancing while running a train service is simply impossible.

Traditionally, railway safety has been determined by a concept called ALARP – risks should be as low as reasonably practical. Somehow, the word ‘reasonably’ has been lost in the railways’ frenzied rush to comply with the rather arbitrary requirements suggested by government who now effectively control them through management contracts.

Yesterday, Sir Peter Hendy, the chairman of Network Rail who has been charged with trying to reconcile these two impossible tasks, admitted that at best the railways could cope with 15 per cent of their former number of passengers. Such a railway system doesn’t work, either practically or economically.

The clue is in the name: the railways are a ‘mass transit’ system. It is simply unavoidable that at times passengers get close up with one another, if not on the trains, then on the platforms, at the ticket barriers or on the overhead bridges between platforms. Commuter services into London and major cities such as Leeds, Birmingham and Manchester will inevitably be crowded. If people are told to take the next train because the initial one is ‘full’, they will soon seek other ways of getting to work or not bother

If there are no full trains, then the whole point of the railways is lost as they become environmentally and economically unsustainable. The railways have lost 90 per cent of the passenger numbers, representing a loss of about £750m in revenue per month. Rishi Sunak may agree to bail them out for a few weeks but not for months or even years. And trains carrying mostly ‘fresh air’ are environmentally less sustainable than cars.

The 2m rule is in fact arbitrary, double the World Health Organisation requirement, and we have not seen the science backing it up. Instead of trying to adhere to the social distancing concept, the railways should have insisted on masks or face coverings for all users, mandatory use of sanitiser, temperature checks and other protective measures.

For their part, passengers would have to assess their own risk. Only around 10 per cent of fatalities have been people of a working age – between 20 and 65 – and at least 80 per cent of those had underlying health conditions. With these basic precautions and as much social distancing as is practicable, the risk to passengers in that age group – especially women who are less susceptible – is likely to be minimal. Certainly, those who are driving instead probably face a bigger risk by being on the roads.

The railways policy is based on the expectation that a vaccine will be found. But that could easily take a year or more, and possibly none will ever be discovered. By then, the railways’ message of ‘Go away, don’t use us’ will be so well entrenched that there may well be no path back to viability. It will not be long then before a Dr Beeching Mark Two starts wielding the axe.